Columns » Bob Lancaster

Second try

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John Updike once wrote that what’s hardest is to know when to quit. I think what’s even harder is to know when to start over.

That is, the piece is virtually done. The point made, or at least danced around. Floral sprays and sleeping pills removed, full barb array heaved at the great white beast, putting him on the run and pulled along with some exhilaration. Anecdotes spun, paragraphs properly stacked, grammar darned. A smart beginning, a middle that doesn’t bog too awful bad, a muscular conclusion that bears up the entire ponderous construction as if it were meringue. Even the headline soldered on.

But then it stumbles on that word virtually. It’s a word that means that the word that follows it is a lie. If you’re virtually certain, then you are uncertain. If a piece of work is virtually finished, it is not finished. And most likely it’s not finished because hiding somewhere in it is a fatal flaw. You can let it go, hope the virtual ruse works, vow to do better next time, or you can hitch up your britches and do the right thing.

Virtuality. The promotion department of the state of Arkansas once bragged to the world that thanks to cutting-edge livestock-dunking the Land of Opportunity had become “virtually tick-free.” Meaning, of course, come the next spring thaw, we had ticks by the battalion, ticks out the wazoo.

A colleague now passed used a pastry analogy. You use all your bakery talents making a cake, put it in the oven, turn on the fire. It’s not then, it’s later on, when it’s almost ready, mitt on, that you know, This is not it. Whatever “it” is, this ain’t. It’s probably a virtual cake at that point, and that may count as cake, but it’s not the cake. Time to start over.

It can be painful (if you’ll pardon that hyperbole) what’s lost in the shambles. The column just abandoned for this one had a long and utterly incongruent digression on Adam, for example, and it’s now just debris, scrap, but I liked it, probably just out of vanity, and I’m tempted to salvage a little of it, stick it in the window here just to invite the admiration of strangers.

He was formed full grown so he must’ve been a manchild virtually hours old at the Expulsion. But by then, he’d got the ball rolling, what he was put here to do, and the rest had to be just killing time. Nine hundred years of it. He raised Cain, we know, and Big Boss Man was initially so chapped about that fruit-tree insubordination that after the banishment he put him on two shifts loading 16 tons of No. 9 coal, but got over it, cut him some slack, and eventually forgot about it, leaving Adam to while away the long centuries without even a Rubik’s Cube. If he didn’t invent the crossword puzzle, it was certainly not because he didn’t have the time.

The indolent old man turned up uninvited in a rumination about how young people are appreciably dumber than people of age, this week’s original topic. I could give you background, but it was a sorry topic to begin with, which mostly accounts for that fatal flaw lamentation up the page yonder. The short of it was that age does trump youth on the average, if only because youth is so insufferably cocksure, even when it doesn’t matter, and especially when it doesn’t matter, which it nearly always doesn’t.

And old Adam wandered up — a sorry specimen, all right, insomniac and hemmorhoidal, but commanding much swell lore gathered over his aeon that the untempered tiny-goobered Adonis gamboling naked around Eden never would’ve suspected. Age wised him up, as it commonly does his seed. He wasn’t even bitter that, in his case as in virtually all of them, youth had been squandered on an imbecile.

I enjoyed his company, and so saved this tatter from that other column that died of self-perceived inadequacy there on the virtual doorstep of publication.

The older-and-sadder-budweiser Adam tale echoes down through the canon. Oldtimer Nero, just as coldly indifferent to Rome’s fate as the punk, would’ve known to lose the fiddle. Codger David O. Dodd, allowed to go back, would’ve spilled his guts to shuck the noose, knowing that in the end nobody on either side had taste or time for the romantic gesture. Granny Spears wouldn’t ever have stepped out sans her step-ins.

You can’t fault such callow, though, because they can’t help it — the whippers or the snappers either one. Until you attain the requisite age, you don’t really make decisions or exercise judgment. Your nads do it for you, the bastards, and then sign your name. Willard and Precious indeed. A brain thus hormonally fogged has the acuity of a sausage log, and the affliction can’t be relieved; it can only be outlived.

But still, not a good topic for this space. For one reason because only old farts think about such as this. For another, the great pageant is always passing out there, and its wars and whores and high-wire acts want all the attention and presume a prior claim on it.

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